Survival of the fittest is now a daily event at Napier University. Its logistical nightmare of placing 2,067 classes involving 669 lecturers and 978 student groups in 45 time-slots and 183 rooms has now been handed over to a "Darwinian" timetabling system developed by its computer studies department.
Higher education institutions use a variety of computerised systems to try to organise timetables, but most still rely on human intervention and can only cope with a limited number of variables. But Napier staff and students are now following a timetable that is the result of the successful "breeding" of timetables over thousands of generations of simulated evolution.
Napier's researchers have developed the system through the advanced computer technology of an "evolutionary algorithm", inspired by the way life evolves in nature.
Project leader Ben Paechter said that in general, timetables are simply based on what is workable. But his team has drawn up 12 qualities aimed at creating an ideal, including minimising movement between Napier's campuses, ensuring that no student group has to study for more than three hours without a break, giving academics a day a week free from teaching, and avoiding students having to come in for a single class.
Perfection will never be achieved, he warned, since there will be inevitable clashes between, for example, staff and student preferences. But the system uses natural selection to create the best possible timetable, working from an initial base of 100 timetables that in effect contain "genes" to be evaluated in terms of the 12 desired qualities.
"The genes tell the computer how to build a timetable. A population of timetables is kept in the computer's memory and allowed to breed," Mr Paechter said.
"Reproduction takes place with 'child' timetables inheriting some characteristics from each 'parent' timetable, and sometimes mutations will occur introducing new timetable genes into the population."
Whether a timetable becomes a parent, or whether it dies, depends on how well it is deemed to work.
Napier's principal, John Mavor, said the system not only made the university a more attractive place to study and work, but also had tremendous potential to explore the "what if?" timetabling implications of, for example, a new joint honours course or building an extension.